When she was 12 years old, violent conflict forced Rania Khadir and her family to leave their home in Baghdad. When they resettled in Basra in southern Iraq, at 17 she had to drop out of school to care for her sick mother and look after her siblings. Stuck at home for five years, with few other prospects, it looked as if Rania might remain silent and invisible, another victim of the many consequences of conflict.
That all changed when she turned 22 and found her voice as a writer and actress.
Mustafa Mizher, who comes from another southern Iraqi city, Amara, left school when he was age 11. One of five children, he worked as a day laborer to support his family. With few skills and poor job prospects, had he stayed a laborer, he may have ended-up joining the Iraqi army or one of the many militias operating in the country. Instead, now also 22, he runs a thriving micro-enterprise.
How did they turn their lives around?
An opportunity to participate in a youth project on strengthening life and work skills and confidence, along with a program to help apply them to their goals, acted as the catalyst they needed to transform their lives. In Rania’s words, it helped her “break the barrier of fear” that had grown from years of living at home, rarely in contact with her peers. It enabled her to develop her talents. Far from remaining silent, Rania is now highly visible on stage, bringing audiences together with her performances. The awards she has received testify to a talent waiting for the chance to express itself.
Mustafa, too had felt he was wasting his life before starting his business. “My youth was slipping away,” he said, “and I was stuck at the starting gate.” The Youth Livelihoods Development in Southern Iraq project adopted a multi-dimensional approach that focused as much on civic engagement with youth led community projects, as on developing life and work skills through training and apprenticeship, developing entrepreneurship skills and facilitating startups through small grants. It gave him the training and support he needed to realize his ambition. “I registered because, like most of you, I had no job,” Mustafa said in a speech to the program’s fellow graduates, “so I thought that maybe this training would help me find employment.” It did more than that.
Step by step, Mustafa turned a US$450 grant into the business he runs today. While continuing to work in the evenings as a cook in a restaurant, he used the grant to buy a motorized scooter, a sattotta, to deliver fruit and vegetables. Eventually, Mustafa sold the sattotta and launched his own kebab stall in the market where he’d spent his childhood as a day laborer. He now earns almost twice the amount of his original grant a month—a decent local income that is higher than many government salaries.